Sherman Alexie | Critical Essay by The New Yorker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sherman Alexie.
This section contains 921 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by The New Yorker

Critical Essay by The New Yorker

SOURCE: "Fancydancer," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 12, May 10, 1993, pp. 38-40.

In the following essay, the critic explores the impact of Alexie's life experiences on his literary works.

Why the nondescript Northwestern city of Spokane was chosen as the site of the 1974 World's Fair is difficult to understand. The "attractions" are almost gone now, except for one that was there all along. Perhaps Expo '74's greatest legacy, or perhaps its only one, was to reveal a roaring stretch of the Spokane River by tearing down an inner-city rail yard that had obscured it from view for more than seventy years.

For centuries, the falls were a spiritual center for the Spokane, a nomadic American Indian tribe whose name means "children of the sun." The Spokane came here in the spring from their winter villages to camp in tepees by the riverbank, lured by the salmon that once ran from the Pacific up the Columbia River into this river. The tribe's first rite of spring was to fast and don beaded, feathered regalia for ceremonial dances to thank the Great Spirit for the salmon, their summer sustenance and their currency of sorts when they began to trade with the suapi, Spokane for "white man."

About a century ago, the suapi, in the form of the American government, sent the Spokane tribe upstream to a reservation sixty miles northwest of the city, in Wellpinit. After the Second World War, when the Indian war veterans came home to Wellpinit, they "modernized" their traditional dancing to reflect more of what they'd seen in the wider world. "Fancydancing" was the name they gave to the flashier, more improvisational version of their dance.

The Haleposey clan, pronounced roughly "Alepsie," was given a new name, too, but well before the Second World War. Russian fur traders who stopped by Wellpinit found the name indecipherable and rechristened the clan "Alexie" in their ledgers. Almost every afternoon, Sherman Alexie, twenty-six, one of the youngest generation of the Haleposey descendants, returns to the sacred site of his ancestors, where he shoots hoops on the basketball courts of the Spokane Y.M.C.A. It's how he caps off a morning spent at his kitchen table doing his own version of "fancydancing," which is the name he has given to his writing. This writing-and-basket-ball routine has gone on for the past five years, and so far it has spawned three small-press books, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and, this past January, a six-figure, two-book contract for a short-story collection and a novel from Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press. "Salmon-travelling," evoking the salmon's sometimes bloody fight upstream, hurling itself over falls and rocks to spawn, is a word one finds sprinkled through Alexie's writing. It is also a word that describes Alexie's own journey. Alexie's obstacles were the joint inheritance of poverty and alcoholism. His mother supported the family by working at the Wellpinit Trading Post or selling quilts she sewed during the long evenings when her husband was drinking.

Alexie shut out this world by devouring books. By the time he was in fifth grade, he'd read the entire Wellpinit school library, auto-repair manuals included. At twelve, he announced to his family that he was going to Reardan High School, thirty-two miles down the road from the reservation. He started there in eighth grade.

Alexie isn't quite sure what drove him to join every possible club and become the captain of the school's basketball team—called, to his family's amusement, the Reardan Indians. Nonetheless, his overachieving gained him admittance to the Jesuit Gonzaga University, in Spokane. Gonzaga had a derailing effect on Alexie, who until that point had never tasted alcohol. There, he discovered its numbing effect, and, after his long struggle to get to college, it soothed his increasing terror about what could or should come next. Rescue was provided by his high-school girlfriend, who was going off to Washington State University. Alexie transferred there with her after two years at Gonzaga. Although he continued to drink uncontrollably, he also began to write.

In 1989, from Washington State, he sent a few poems and short stories to Hanging Loose magazine, a Brooklyn-based literary biannual he'd seen while he was hanging around the university's library. He was first published in the magazine in 1990, and later a poetry-and-short-story collection, The Business of Fancydancing, was published by the ancillary Hanging Loose Press.

Until 1992, Alexie had never been east of Missoula, Montana, but now sixty readings have taken him, and his sense of guilt and wonder, all over America. "There were as many opportunities for me to fail as to succeed," he says. "I know a hundred other stories of people on my reservation who failed. I'm amazed that I've made it, and feel guilty because I've left some people behind. Why do doors keep swinging open at the right time?" he asks. The answer must be all that fancydancing.

His latest and longest jump shot has been onto the national literary scene. Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press has made The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven its lead book for the fall. Alexie recently came to New York for a reading at New York University's Loeb Student Center. He wore a special mugger's wallet he'd invented for the trip, and saw his first Broadway show. He met his agent and his publisher, but not for drinks: he won the struggle against drinking three years ago. When Indians succeed in the suapi world, Alexie says, "we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees."

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This section contains 921 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by The New Yorker